The Alarms They Are A-Changin’: The Future of Fire Alarms in Smart Buildings

0719 Life Safety Systems Image Credit: Shutterstock / Rogistok
Image Credit: Shutterstock / Rogistok

As a member of the NFPA 72 Protected Premises Technical Committee during the past few code cycles, I have found it very interesting to discuss proposed changes to fire alarms of the future. Technology is improving the efficiency of new buildings, so fire alarms will have to be part of the change. You should go back and read Wayne Moore’s article, “IoT Applications to Fire Alarm System Installations” (Electrical Contractor, February 2018).

While technology is changing extremely quickly, fire alarms, historically, are very slow to respond. Progress has been made but not anywhere near at the speed of other systems. This is primarily based on meeting current UL standards and code requirements for fire alarm equipment. Codes are updated every three years, and most states don’t adopt them right away, so our industry is always playing catch up. Part of the problem is fear of change itself.

Significant changes started with the 2010 edition when the National Fire Alarm Code became the National Fire Alarm and Signaling Code. NFPA 72 is no longer just for fire alarms. The code layout was changed to make it easier for non-fire alarm users to use. In 2013, the International Association of Fire Chiefs proposed a number of changes in an effort to reduce unwanted alarms. One key change was to allow only addressable fire alarm systems to be installed. The logic was that you can get a lot more information from an addressable device, which is needed to improve quality and reliability of future fire alarm systems. If you can’t identify a problem, you can’t fix it. In the 2016 edition, adding Class N (Network) circuits was a major change. Wayne discussed this in his article, and I have written articles on Class N circuits as well. This is a major change for future fire alarms.

Another significant recent change is the way fire alarm systems are monitored. Communicators connected to telephone lines are being replaced by monitoring with cell signals, mesh radio or the internet. The equipment used for some of these monitoring methods are listed for IT only, not fire alarm.

In addition to using technology to help reduce unwanted alarms, it needs to make systems more efficient and less costly, both from an installation and maintenance point of view. Class N circuits, if used, are installed like IT circuits for your computer systems. NFPA 72 allows shared pathways for life safety and non-life safety equipment, so using circuits for more than one purpose could save money.

Another change in 2019, a new definition of a “Building System Information Unit” was added. Paragraph 3.3.34 reads, “A computer-based electronic device that is intended to display building information and execute system control functions, including fire system information display and control.” At the present time, this would typically be a computer installed in the same room as the fire alarm control unit that would be used for controlling building management systems as well as the fire alarm. Since computers now run the world, isn’t it feasible that fire alarms will be part of the computer system at some point in the future? There already are smoke alarms that can send a signal to your cellphone when activated. There may come a day that fire sensors report directly to a computer instead of a fire alarm control and occupants of the building will get an alert on their cellphone, tablet or computer.

Testing fire alarm equipment could also change dramatically. NFPA 72 already allows automated testing of equipment as long as it is listed to do so. Addressable fire alarm control units can monitor and adjust smoke detector sensitivity electronically. At least one manufacturer makes a fire alarm system that allows audible notification appliances to self-test and can verify audibility levels are the same as when they were installed. This solved a huge problem in our industry, since no one wants sounding of fire alarm notification appliances in occupied buildings.

Fire alarms of the future should have the capability of providing better information to occupants as well as fire departments, improving fire and life safety through better use of technology, combining with other equipment like security or mass notification equipment for broader usage and reducing costs over the life of the system. It’s hard to believe iPhones have only been around for 12 years. Look how they have changed the world. I believe we have only seen the tip of the iceberg for fire alarm systems of the future.

About the Author
Tom Hammerberg

Thomas P. Hammerberg

Life Safety Columnist

Thomas P. Hammerberg, SET, CFPS is an indepe       ndent fire alarm presenter and consultant residing in Jasper, GA. Tom served on multiple NFPA technical committees as well as actively participating in the ICC code making process for many years. He...

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.